Mark and I have been asked a lot of questions about our trip to Tanzania, some of which have come up so frequently I thought I'd write up the answers here. Many of them included blood and mayhem (I'm starting to wonder about our choice of friends) but most of them were about the practicalities of traveling in a foreign country with only a rented vehicle as a home.
A few things before I start:
- Keep in mind this is what we found on our trip. I'd hate to be responsible for someone's horrible vacation based on what I've written.
- A few of the subjects are not exactly dinner table discussion material, but since they are a very basic part of life I've included them (they also happen to be some of the most frequently asked questions.) If you decide to go on a trip like this you'll thank me.
- It's good to be cautious in everything you do—be it walking to the neighborhood store in heavy traffic or hiking a high mountain trail with grizzly bears—but don't let fear keep you from stepping out the door. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but with proper preparation and caution, the cat doesn't have to kill you.
This was probably the most frustrating and difficult aspect of the trip for us. We were scheduled to stop in at a large grocery store in Arusha before we left on our trip, but the store had closed the week before we arrived so we had to make do with a small mini-mart type store. Subsequently, we didn't have a lot of choice and purchased the very basics like bread, peanut butter, jelly, hot dogs and hamburgers. We were hoping to try more exotic foods while we were there, but the store we visited catered to the ex-pat community, so we ended up with the same type of stuff we have at home. One shining exception though was their juice: they had the best juice blends we've ever tasted, and with fanciful names like "Whisper of Summer" and "Tropical Splendor." Another handy item they had, especially with our limited refrigeration, was milk in those vacuum sealed boxes. We didn't have to worry about keeping a ton of milk cold, just the one open container at a time.
Once we left Arusha the pickings got even slimmer. Signage is not a Tanzanian strong point, on the roads or on the businesses. When we were running out of food we ended up in a very small town and had to search for a store, ending up at a small place that only sold produce and some trinkets. We bought fruit that we could peel, avoiding other items like leafy greens that might make us sick. We ate a lot of bananas, which were readily available. I don't like bananas, but it's amazing what hunger will do for your palate.
Weren't you scared of the animals?
In a word: no.
We are used to camping in bear country and that served as good training for Africa. Keep a clean camp, put everything away every night (food, cooking utensils, clothes, shoes, tables, chairs—everything) and you won't have trouble. Don't attract hungry animals by being sloppy when you cook, and don't attract curious animals (read: baboons) by leaving anything else out. We were told if we left our shoes outside the tent or car, kiss them goodbye. Baboons love to steal anything that's not tied down.
We heard animals every night and it wasn't scary exactly, just exciting. We heard lions roaring and elephants trumpeting, hyenas making their weird hyena sounds and other mysterious noises everywhere we went; after a few days you get used to the sounds. We were assured the animals don't see vehicles and tents as a food source, and that proved to be true. We also never saw anyone trying to feed animals or leaving food out when they weren't actually eating. I'd say that's a wise decision for both the people and the animal's safety.
We also abided by the "no walking around at night" rule. It's not just the predators you have to worry about at night; startling a cape buffalo or any other creature for that matter, could kill you just as dead as a lion could.
The most nervous I got while we were there was driving through a group of baboons. For some reason these guys did not want to get off the road, and as we slowly drove through a big male stared at me through my open car window. I realized then that he could easily jump up to the car and tear my face off if he felt like it, we were that close. I rolled up my window.
How did you know where to camp?
There are designated public campsites in every park which are marked on the maps. Finding them was sometimes a challenge since the maps weren't always accurate, and the signs spotty. If we had any trouble, we just asked a passing safari tour driver. The most experienced drivers know those parks like the back of their hand.
Some of the parks have "special" campsites that are reservable with TANAPA (Tanzanian Parks Assoc.) These spots are located here and there around the parks, and usually marked by signs and on the map. Our tour company (Shaw Safaris) reserved these for us before we arrived, and we carried a permit with us that we showed at the park gate upon entering.
The typical public campground was $10.00 U.S./person/night, and the special campsites were $50.00 U.S./night.
How did you find fuel?
There are fuel stations in the big towns that look a lot like the ones here at home. You're not allowed to pump your own, and the attendants for some reason were almost always female. (I'm not sure if that's significant, but that's what we found.) In the small villages the only option was from an independent dealer. You could tell where these guys were by the pile of 55 gallon drums in front of their hut. You have to be careful about these; there are some unscrupulous ones that add water to stretch their profits. We were advised to make them fill a clear container with the fuel before filling the tank so we could see if there was anything suspicious going on.
The price for fuel there was a little more than in the U.S., about $4.50/gallon. Keep in mind they work in liters (and kilometers), so be prepared to convert your mileage if that's not how you're used to looking at it. Also, they will only accept Tanzanian shillings for fuel; no U.S. currency and no credit cards.
Was it hard to communicate with the people there?
Tanzanians speak Kiswahili or their tribal language at home. In school, they are taught Kiswahili up until middle school, when they are taught English. We found most everyone spoke a little English except in the areas farthest from towns, where I suspect some of the Maasai didn't attend school (and probably didn't speak Kiswahili either.) All the tour drivers, guides and park workers spoke English very well, and it was used as the common language with the tourists no matter which country they came from. We were lucky in that respect, although to be polite we did try to at least greet and thank people with the Kiswahili 'jambo' and 'asante'. We were supplied a list of common phrases that came in handy in a few of the smaller villages, although if there was a problem translating it only took a minute for the storekeeper to send (usually as close as across the street) for an English translator.
Were there bathrooms there?
In the organized campgrounds there were bathrooms; anything from a western-style flush toilet to a long drop with foot pads on either side of the hole and a bucket of water with a dipper for rinsing.
If you aren't allowed to get out of the vehicle (or tent at night), what did you do, when, you know...
Every night we took an empty wide-mouth plastic bottle up to our tent just in case nature called. This set up worked as-is for Mark, but I required a little help to avoid a mess. This is where the Lady-J came in. It's a small plastic device that directs the flow wherever you want it to go, as opposed to all over the tent and blankets. I practiced with it at home before we left and it worked great. The only trouble I had was keeping hold of the device and the bottle while trying to make sure I didn't drip on anything during the wiping stage. And speaking of wiping, I also brought a ziplock bag up every night to hold the device and any used toilet paper. I didn't need it every night, but when I did it came in very handy. I also had it in the car with us during the day in case I needed it during the long drives (I never needed it then as it turned out.)
The only worry we had was if one of us got sick in the middle of the night. Tummy troubles can't be solved with a plastic bottle. We were fairly lucky in this regard; I had some trouble on two occasions, the first being in the Serengeti but during the day. The second was in the middle of the night at Lake Natron. Luckily, we were only a hundred feet from the bathroom there, and there weren't many animals in that area. I risked the walk to the latrine and didn't have any problems. Actually, that night, I would have welcomed being eaten, if only to put me out of my misery.
How did you know where to look for animals?
This question was posed to us by people that had been part of the organized safaris in the past. Their guides had found animals and advised them where to look, using their radios to communicate the action to one another. We thought we'd have more trouble than we did, but truthfully, the animals are everywhere. We read our guide book before we left and marked the pages of the significant animals and more importantly, their habitats. Driving slowly and keeping our eyes peeled we found the most extraordinary things. It didn't hurt to keep our eyes on the professionals either; that's how we found the leopard in Serengeti. In other cases it was just being in the right place at the right time.
I think it would be hard to go to Africa and NOT see animals.
What was the weather like there?
We went in the months of July and August, the middle of Tanzania's winter. It was generally pleasant during the day, 70s-80s (Fahrenheit), and in the 50s at night. The only exception was at the Ngorongoro Crater which is at 7000 feet; it was in the 60s and cloudy during the day with some rain, and in the 40s at night.
What did you wear?
We took Shaw's advice and only packed about five days worth of clothes. The vehicle wasn't that big, and frankly, we got so dirty so quickly it wasn't worth trying to stay spotless all the time. We brought five t-shirts, two pairs of shorts, a pair of long pants, five sets of underwear and socks, one pair of shoes and one pair of flip flops, a long sleeve overshirt for both the sun and cool nights, a fleece pullover for the colder nights, and long underwear for the really cold nights on Ngorongoro. We also wore a nicer set of clothes on the plane on the way over, and then again on the way back to spare our seat mates the agony of a well-worn camping outfit. We had clothes detergent and a small clothesline with us and washed underwear, socks and the occasional t-shirt every few days, so it's not as disgusting as you might think. The dry weather there meant our clothes were dry and ready to wear by the next morning.
Were the bugs bad?
With the exception of the tsetse flies in Serengeti, we had almost no problems with bugs. Whether it was the time of year or the parks we visited, we got really lucky. After camping in Lake Manyara our car was covered with spider webs, but we didn't personally have any problems with the spiders.
Would you go back?
In a hearbeat.
If you asked us on the first day out, we might have thought differently. I'll admit to wondering on those first couple days "What the hell were we thinking when we signed up for this?" But once we got the hang of it, once we started to understand how it worked and let go of our pre-conceived notions it got better, and by the end we didn't want to leave. Tanzania might be a third world country but it's people, animals and scenery are first rate.